There’s nothing more enjoyable than the sight of your dog playing outside – the pure joy of watching him run up and down hillsides or rolling in the long, cool grass. Outdoor activities are a great way for you and your dog to spend time together, but it’s important to be aware of the hazards that foxtail plants can pose. Exposure to foxtails can be extremely harmful to your dog, especially if left untreated. So here’s some information about why foxtails are dangerous to your dog and what you can do to help keep your dog away from locations where foxtails are most likely to grow.
What Are Foxtails
Foxtails are grassy plants that are most commonly found in the Western and Southern United States, and are especially prevalent in California. Most likely you’ve seen foxtail plants when you’re walking your dog or hiking along trails – you just didn’t know what this plant was called.
Foxtail plants grow like weeds and are often found in open grassy fields, on hiking trails, along roadsides or even in empty lots. They can also thrive in irrigated meadows and along the banks of ponds or marshes. There are several different types of wild grasses that fall into the foxtail category, with wild barley grass being one of the most common types. Foxtail plants start out with wide, flat leaf blades that are typically 1/4” to 1/2″ wide and the base of the leaves are covered with small, fine hairs. At first, foxtails grow low to the ground so they can sometimes be hard to spot, especially when they’re mixed in with taller grasses. But with the winter and spring rains, these plants will suddenly grow very quickly. As they continue to mature, foxtails will eventually produce a stem from the middle of the plant that can grow anywhere from 3-10 inches tall. This stem will then develop a stalk of flowery seeds as it approaches the end of its growth cycle, which typically is late in the spring or early summer. The cluster of seeds, also known as “awns”, have a soft, bushy appearance which is why the plant is called “foxtail” – it looks very similar to the bushy tail of a fox.
The flowery heads will eventually dry out, allowing the seeds to fall off the plant and scatter across the ground so they can take root and form new plants. If you look closely at the foxtail flower heads, you’ll see long, sharp bristles that are made up of microscopic barbs. These barbs not only allow the seeds to burrow into the soil, they are also very effective at sticking easily onto animals (like your dog) that are simply passing by. By sticking to the fur of your dog or other animals, the foxtail seeds are now able to travel to new locations in which they can grow.
Why Foxtails Are Dangerous to Your Dog
What makes foxtails especially dangerous to your dog is if your dog brushes against them, rolls on them, steps on them or even sniffs them, the microscopic barbs of the foxtail can hook onto your dog. Once the spiked foxtails attach to your dog, they often wind up going much deeper into his fur and can penetrate through his skin. This ultimately can lead to abscesses and infections, and can quickly cause significant tissue damage as they move through the inside of his body. Dogs of all sizes and breeds are susceptible to picking up foxtails, but dogs with longer hair or curly hair are especially vulnerable since the barbs can easily attach to their fur. Foxtails are also more difficult to find in the fur of long or curly haired dogs as compared to dogs with short hair. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the foxtail will fall off your dog on its own without causing any damage. But it if doesn’t drop off by itself, it can become embedded into your dog’s skin which potentially can lead to serious health problems.
If you pick up a foxtail with your hand and rub it back and forth with your fingers, you’ll be able to feel why foxtails are dangerous to your dog. You’ll notice that the sharp barbs move in only one direction and if you try to rub it backwards, the barbs will catch your skin and the bristles will break off into even smaller pieces. This is exactly what can happen to your dog if he comes in contact with a foxtail. Foxtails can attach themselves to any part of your dog’s body, but here are some common places on your dog where you will find them:
Paws and toes
– If your dog is outside in a place where foxtails grow, there’s a good chance that he’ll end up stepping on one. If a foxtail does end up getting into your dog’s paw, the flexing motion from walking will push it into his pad or will pierce the skin in between his toes. From there, it could possibly migrate deeper into his foot and into his leg. So be on the lookout if your dog is in an area where there are foxtails and you see him limping or licking his paws.
– Foxtails can also make their way into your dog’s nose, especially if he’s a typical dog who enjoys sniffing and smelling his surroundings when he’s out for a walk. If this happens, the foxtail could end up lodging itself into his nasal passage or even travel into his lungs. Some of the warning signs could include sudden sneezing, pawing at his nose or nasal discharge.
– If a foxtail makes its way into your dog’s mouth, it could become embedded in his tongue, cheek or throat, which could cause him to gag, cough or repeatedly swallow. If there’s a foxtail that is lodged in your dog’s throat and it’s left untreated, it could eventually migrate towards his lungs.
– Your dog’s ears as also susceptible to foxtails, especially if he’s been rolling in a place where foxtails grow. If left untreated, the foxtail could embed itself into his ear canal and perforate his ear drums. If your dog is scratching his ears or shaking and tilting his head, this could mean there’s a foxtail in his ear. Even if you lift your dog’s ear and try to look inside, you may not be able to see it since it could be embedded deep inside his ear.
– If a foxtail gets into your dog’s eye or eyelid, your dog may squint and paw at his eye or you’ll see redness, tearing or mucous discharge. This is especially dangerous since it can cause serious damage to his cornea and possibly cause blindness.
– Foxtails can be hard to find in your dog’s fur, especially if your dog has long or curly hair. Once hidden beneath his fur, a foxtail can puncture the skin and embed itself quickly before you even know it’s there. Signs could include a lump on your dog’s skin that is painful to touch, an area on his skin where there is swelling or discharge, or a visible abscess or puncture. After the foxtail has made it’s way under the skin, it will continue to migrate through your dog’s body and will travel through his tissues and organs.
Once a foxtail is inside your dog’s body, his system will not be able to absorb it or break down it down. This means the foxtail will continue to burrow deeper into his body and unfortunately, will not stop moving unless it hits a barrier such as a bone or is able to exit through another part of your dog’s skin. To make matters worse, foxtails carry bacteria that can cause further infection and tissue damage. As the foxtail continues to travel through your dog’s body, it will leave behind a hollow trail from the entry point to the exit point, which is extremely damaging and hard to repair.
If you suspect your dog has been exposed to foxtails, you’ll need to contact your veterinarian immediately. Your vet will be able to examine your dog and can remove the foxtail to prevent further damage. Anytime you see your dog scratching his ears, shaking his head or licking his paws excessively, it’s a good idea to have him checked out by your vet just to make sure he hasn’t picked up a foxtail. Remember – the sooner you’re able to get your dog to the vet, the better the chances are that he can remove the foxtail before it burrows in too far.
Whenever possible, the best way to keep your dog from getting foxtails is to keep him out of areas where they could be located, especially in open fields where there are dried grassy patches. If you have a field dog or are repeatedly in areas where there are foxtails, you might want to check out protective gear for your dog’s body, feet or face.
When you come back from walking or hiking, always inspect your dog carefully to see if he’s picked up any foxtails while you were outside. You’ll want to be vigilant about combing his coat and check his belly, armpits and in between his toes. You’ll also want to carefully check his face, eyes, nose, mouth and ears for signs of foxtails. Also, keep your dog’s coat well-groomed at all times and if you have a dog with long or curly hair, you might want to keep his fur trimmed in the summertime so you easily spot a foxtail on him. You can also give your dog MaxiDerm Skin and Coat Formula, which will help him with shedding and will keep his coat smooth and healthy all summer long.
If you discover that you have foxtails in your backyard, you’ll want to get rid of them quickly before they start to mature and dry out. The best way to eliminate the foxtail plants is to pull them out of the ground as soon as you find them, making sure that you immediately rake and clean them up. Some people use lawnmowers to remove their foxtail plants, but this method could easily scatter the foxtail seeds across your yard and could be very difficult to pick up.
So while you’re out playing or hiking with your dog and enjoying the beautiful weather, you should be on the lookout for foxtails and regularly check your dog after being outside. By following these tips and keeping your dog away from areas where foxtails grow, you can significantly reduce that chances of your dog picking up foxtails. Remember, if your dog does end up with foxtails, call your vet immediately – early intervention can help prevent serious harm to your canine companion.